Is Jerry West Overrated as a GM?
Ask the average pro basketball fan or media member, "Who's been the best NBA general manager of the last 30 years?" and the answer you are very likely to hear in return is "Jerry West." West would win any such poll by acclamation, as he has assumed a legendary status as a personnel evaluator.
I certainly think that Jerry West has a very good eye for personnel, but I have tended to believe that West has ultimately been overrated as a GM because he had a huge advantage over the competition in working for the Lakers, the league's marquee franchise - the clear-cut no. 1 most attractive market to players, in terms of both city and team.
It's a big year for Jerry-Westology, with Roland Lazenby's biography, Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, having just been released, and a new autobiography from West himself coming in the fall.
Despite the double shot of West books, the main impetus which caused me to reconsider this topic was actually a couple of notes in the recent Magic/Bird book (with Jackie MacMullan), When The Game Was Ours, as well as The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.
Namely, let's go back to the 1979 NBA Draft, when Bill Sharman was the Lakers' general manager and West was a key member of the front office (he would become general manager after the 1981-82 season). This Simmons footnote caught my eye:
- In Magic's book, he writes that Jerry West wanted to trade down and pick Moncrief - remember, they already had Norm Nixon playing point - only Jerry Buss overruled him because he was buying the team and Magic was a bigger name.
When The Game Was Ours confirmed the story:
- Magic's visit with the Lakers also went well. He walked out convinced they would take him if they selected first - until he read an LA Times article on the plane ride home discussing general manager [Ed. Note: This is an error in the book – Bill Sharman was GM at the time.] Jerry West's fascination with Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief, the team's plans to bring in UCLA forward David Greenwood for an interview, and speculation that the Lakers could use the draft selection to trade for a power forward.
"Maybe they don't like me as much as I think," he confided to his father.
What Magic didn't know was that Dr. Jerry Buss, the future owner of the Lakers who was about to buy the team from Jack Kent Cooke, told the Lakers front office that he expected the team to draft Magic.
"They resisted because Jerry West really liked Moncrief too," Buss said. "But I told them, 'It's Magic, or find yourself another buyer.'"
This is my main beef with West as a GM: I've believed that the acquisitions of the superstars which keyed each of the two championship runs he presided over were acquired due to tremendous good fortune as much as West's acumen.
In the '80s, the two cornerstones were of course Magic, whom we just discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was acquired via trade in 1975. Let the record show that West was fortunate not only just because he inherited Kareem, but also because of the advantage of the L.A. market - Kareem specifically requested that he be traded to either New York or Los Angeles.
As far as the superstars of the early-2000s run, West of course deserves much credit for having the eye to spot Kobe Bryant's talent when few others did, and being ahead of the curve early in the preps-to-pros era. However, I don’t believe that West ever would have landed Bryant if he hadn’t been with the Lakers.
The New Jersey Nets also had Kobe evaluated as potential star and sat ahead of the Lakers in the draft at no. 8. L.A. was at no. 13 after West traded Vlade Divac for the Hornets’ pick.
So, how and why did Kobe land in Hollywood instead of the Meadowlands? There have always been conflicting accounts on the specifics. Lazenby’s account is quite charitable to West. Dime ran this brief excerpt in a recent story:
- First West had to take the huge gamble of trading veteran center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for their thirteenth pick in the draft. Then he learned that John Calipari, the coach of the New Jersey Nets, planned to take [Kobe] Bryant with the eighth pick before the Lakers could snare him at thirteen.
"Jerry wanted Kobe, so he basically called up and talked Cal out of drafting Kobe," explained Hal Wissel, who was with the Nets at the time. West encouraged the Bryant family to talk to Calipari and explain that their son really wanted to play for the Lakers. "He knew if we didn’t take him at eight, he’d drop to Charlotte, and he could make the deal with Charlotte," Wissel recalled. "Cal was young in the league and, hey, it’s Jerry West on the phone."
- "[Bryant] was our pick. We had dinner with his parents the night before the draft and we told them he was our choice," recalled John Nash, who was New Jersey's general manager at the time.
The Nets had brought Bryant in for three workouts, and a year before that they had been hearing stories from the likes of Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Doug Overton and Tim Legler about a 16-year kid from Lower Merion H.S., who was lighting up every NBA player he was matched against in workouts at the Philadelphia Sporting Club.
The afternoon of the draft, Nash received two phone calls - one from Bryant and one from his agent, Arn Tellem.
"They said Kobe had had a tremendous change of heart," Nash said. "Kobe suggested he wouldn't play in New Jersey."
Within a couple of hours, Nash learned that the Hornets and Lakers had worked out a deal to sent Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to Bryant. Lakers president Jerry West had already offered Divac to the Nets for the eighth pick, but New Jersey turned it down.
As Nash recalls, he, then-coach John Calipari and then-owner Joseph Taub discussed what to do. Nash wanted to call Bryant's bluff and take him anyway; Calipari wanted to take Kerry Kittles (agent David Falk was pleading with the club to select Kittles, just as Tellem was begging them not to draft Bryant), while Taub wanted to take John Wallace to fill a need at small forward.
Calipari had final say, and the Nets decided to pick Kittles with the No. 8 pick.
"Arn Tellem had something to do with that. I don't know how much leverage a 17-year old kid can have," Bryant said. "At that point in time I was ready to play anywhere - Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey, Charlotte, didn't matter."
Vaccaro claims that Kobe's father, Joe Bryant, told the Nets brass on the day of the draft that "Kobe wasn't going to go to New Jersey, he was going to go to Italy." It was a plausible bluff, considering Kobe spent a few years of his childhood in Italy when Joe played there. But Vaccaro then said, "I doubt with the competitiveness of Kobe Bryant that he would have gone to Italy. We'll never know."
Kobe wanted to go to L.A., it was clear. As Vaccaro said, "First of all, it's Jerry West, and it's the guy on the [logo] and all that stuff. And it's the Lakers. There is something to it. It wasn't like Jerry West was with the Omaha Mushriders."
John Nash and John Calipari were every bit as accurate as Jerry West was, but they did not have the power of the Lakers franchise behind them. Yes, West was shrewd in his evaluation of Kobe Bryant, but without the Lakers, he never would have landed him.
I have to admit that I started this piece very strongly believing that Jerry West was overrated as a GM, but my research into the Shaq signing has shifted my position a little bit. I carried the common misconception that, because he signed for less money in L.A. than Orlando ultimately offered, Shaq had planned all along to head to Hollywood no matter what.
In reality, it was a much bolder gamble by West which pushed the signing forward in the summer of 1996. Though, still, the move was only plausible because the L.A. Lakers were one of the few franchises with the marquee value suitable for Shaq. He never woulda been goin' to Memphis, no matter who was there.
Steve Springer did an outstanding job piecing together the Laker moves of the pivotal "Summer of '96" for the L.A. Times back in 2001. Here’s an excerpt:
- Drafted by Orlando in 1992, he was a free agent at the end of the 1995-96 season. It was assumed O'Neal, involved in the music and movie business, and so enraptured with L.A. that he kept a car here permanently, would be interested in the Lakers.
But to this day, his agent, Leonard Armato, insists the Magic was O'Neal's first choice. "Shaq wanted to stay in Orlando," he says, "and we were going to do whatever possible to ensure he stayed there."
No other team was allowed to even talk to O'Neal or Armato under league rules until July 11, 1996. No earlier than 2 p.m., to be specific. By 3 p.m., Armato was in West's Bel-Air home.
West already had the first piece of his puzzle, having traded his starting center, Vlade Divac, on June 26 in order to clear room under the salary cap and obtain Kobe Bryant. But that had left the Lakers a big hole in the middle. "It was nervous time," says Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka. "We had traded our starting center to shoot for the moon."
That's an apt description, according to Armato. "The stars must have been truly aligned," he says. "For Shaq to wind up in Los Angeles was purely fortuitous. It required a variety of circumstances to fall into place."
The first of those circumstances was the Magic's initial offer to O'Neal--four years at $54 million. "We were slightly disappointed," says Armato in a heavy dose of understatement. "You would think that someone who said they wanted to make a major commitment would extend the contract as long as permissible under league rules." That would be seven years.
"The [Orlando] media became so critical of the possible contract," Armato says. "The Orlando fans began to question whether Shaq was worth the amount of money needed to sign him. It was one thing after another. Shaq was disappointed. After that, we felt it was worth looking around. We felt, from a business standpoint, it made sense to examine the alternatives.
"That was the crack in the door. Jerry West kicked that door open and ran right in." What he ran in with was a seven-year, $95.5-million offer. Still, West had his doubts. He considered signing Dale Davis instead. West warned owner Jerry Buss that getting O'Neal could be a long and draining process, with no guarantee of success. Buss told West to think big and keep his checkbook open.
On July 16, the Lakers traded Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to the Vancouver Grizzlies for future considerations, basically giving the players away to free up $3.63 million.
Finally, on July 18 at about 1 a.m. in an Atlanta hotel room in the midst of the Olympics, O'Neal, a member of the U.S. dream team, signed a dream deal with the Lakers, $120 million for seven years. At the end, Orlando had come up with nearly the same money, but it was too late.
West described the magnitude of the signing as second only to the birth of his children.
Armato found himself wandering the streets of Atlanta after O'Neal put his name on the contract. "I didn't know what to do to celebrate," Armato says. "But I knew something special had happened, something historic."
- "We, of course, were trying to re-sign Shaq, and we weren't overly concerned that we might lose him. Obviously, we thought, the Lakers would have liked to sign him, but they couldn't; they didn't have enough room under the salary cap.
We underestimated Jerry West's boldness as a strategic thinker.
The instant we heard that Lynch and Peeler were leaving L.A., we knew we were in big trouble. The Lakers could now afford Shaquille O'Neal.
Within hours, the Lakers made their move. We got a call in the dark of night from Shaq's agent, Leonard Armato, telling us that Shaq was going to sign with the Lakers. We said, "Don't let him sign; we'll top the Lakers' offer. And we did - but it didn't matter. Shaq had made up his mind to go to L.A. and the Lakers' offer was close enough.
It had all been a huge gamble of Jerry's part - a complex chess game in which he had traded away three starters for the chance (which was far from guaranteed) that he would be able to acquire Kobe and Shaq. The stakes were high, the odds were long, and the entire scheme could have easily ended in disaster.
But Jerry West took his bold gamble and he won big time. It was the boldest sports move I have seen in my entire career. Even though my team was on the losing end of that deal, I had to admire the sheer chutzpah of Jerry West.
BEYOND THE SUPERSTARS
One area in which West was undeniably outstanding was in filling out his championship teams with the right players around his superstars.
West grabbed franchise mainstay A.C. Green with a late first-round pick in 1985, and then did the same with Derek Fisher in 1996. He boldly replaced popular vet Norm Nixon with rookie Byron Scott in 1983.
And West also picked a good fit in going with James Worthy over Dominique Wilkins and Terry Cummings with the no. 1 overall pick in the 1982 draft. Nique and Cummings were so good that I'm not sure either would have derailed Showtime, but West's logic that Big Game James was a better fit as a third wheel who didn't need the ball as much as Dominique would have is plausibly sound.
Also, West was ahead of the curve on international players with his selection of Vlade Divac in 1989, a great value pick late in the first round.
One other note in When The Game Was Ours which jumped out at me was about Bill Walton, when he was looking to change teams in the summer of 1985:
- "Walton contacted the Lakers first, but West was wary of his medical issues, so Walton placed a call to Red Auerbach."
That said, Walton was already broken down by 1986-87, when West made up for that error with his trade for Mychal Thompson, seen as a Pau Gasol-like fleecing of its time, which pushed the Lakers over the top to an all-time great season of their own.
Some people note that West lifted the Grizzlies to their best seasons by far during his tenure there. This is true, but it is also true that Memphis never won a single playoff game there. First-round exits are not what legendary GM status is made of. Just ask Kevin McHale.
West never got his superstar in Memphis, losing out on one of the ultimate all-or-nothing NBA moments in the 2003 LeBron Lottery, when the Grizzlies had to give their pick to Detroit if it was anything below no. 1. Of course, West was left empty-handed when Memphis ended up no. 2 (though Detroit arguably ended up with less-than-nothing in Darko Milicic…).
My favorite moment, however, came after the 2007 draft lottery, right before West stepped down as the Grizzlies general manager. Memphis had the worst record in the league in 2006-07, but ended up just no. 4 in the lottery. Afterward, West said, "It's grossly unfair to the team, but I've said it before, I don't think the lottery is fair."
It has to be one of the richest comments in NBA history: Jerry West complaining that things were unfair to him, after building a legend as a executive on the back of the huge advantage of the L.A. market and Lakers franchise.
After all this, one thing which has made me more sympathetic to West is trying to figure out who's been better, especially after looking back at Kelly Dwyer's list of the top 10 GM's of the 2000s.
The list is headed by San Antonio's R.C. Buford. The Spurs' arc really hasn't been much different than West's with the Lakers. They've done an outstanding job of unearthing the right players to fill in around the great fortune of winning two prized lotteries for David Robinson (1987) and Tim Duncan (1997), without whom the rest wouldn't be possible.
Go back a decade, and Jerry Krause would be near the top. As good as he was in building the Bulls' roster, the one essential thing he did was inherit Michael Jordan.
Other guys on Kelly's list include Donnie Nelson and Kevin Pritchard, GMs fortunate to have the advantage of largely unlimited spending.
Geoff Petrie and Joe Dumars both justifiably made the list as well. I thought that both men did significantly more impressive jobs than West in building their contenders and, in Dumars' case, champions in the 2000s. But Dumars has been atrocious in recent years, and Petrie has seemed to have fallen behind the times in recent years. Neither has been as consistent for as long as West was.
All in all, it shows that being fortunate in one way or another is a key element of becoming legendary as an NBA GM (or as a coach, really). I still think that Jerry West is overrated as a general manager, and I still don't think he is the mythical figure he's made out to be as a personnel man. But when I ask the question: "Who's been consistently better than Jerry West in the post-merger era?", it's tough for me to come up with anyone.